6 minutes

The History of an Icon – The Rolex Submariner

By Jorg Weppelink
The History of an Icon – The Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner

The beautiful thing about watches is their ability to survive generations. They tell us stories about achievements, family, and individuals that are often just as significant as the technical expertise it took to make them. In the vast landscape of watches, some go on to be recognized as icons of the industry. This series will take a closer look at the most prominent among them, starting off with what is possibly the biggest of them all: the Rolex Submariner.

The Rolex Submariner is probably the most popular luxury watch. It’s a member of the Rolex family of sports watches and has been a big success ever since its introduction in the 1950s. Multiple factors have contributed to its success. Firstly, the watch has consistently proven itself to be a proper, high-quality diving watch over the last 60 years. Secondly, Rolex has been clever with their marketing, gaining a tremendous amount of attention for the Submariner via its role in many James Bond films. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Submariner can also function as a dress watch thanks to its elegant and timeless design. People’s eyes are sure to be drawn to it, even if they already know what time it is. The Submariner is more than just a watch: It’s a statement of luxury and prestige.

The Beginnings

As with many classic watch icons, it all started with a practical question. The Rolex Submariner’s story begins in the early 1950s when Rolex director and amateur diver Rene P. Jeanneret challenged the company to develop a diving watch that also could be worn as an elegant timepiece for everyday use. In 1953, the company was ready to put their answer to Jeanneret’s question to the test. That same year, Auguste Piccard and his son, Jacques, attempted a world diving record. The pair successfully took their bathyscaphe to a mind-boggling record depth of 3,131.8 meters (10,275 ft). Attached to the outside was a Rolex made especially for this adventure. After the bathyscaphe resurfaced, the watch was still working properly. This was the start of the legacy.

Introduction to the Public

In 1954, Rolex introduced two Submariner models to the public at the Basel Watch Fair. These two models, the refs. 6204 and 6205, were the first watches to be water resistant up to 100 meters (328 feet). A year later, a third version with the reference number 6200 – regarded by many as the ‘holy grail of Rolexes’ – was introduced to the public. Although it came after the ref. 6204, its reference number and the old-fashioned movement suggests that it was actually produced earlier.

The ref. 6200 is slightly larger, has a thicker case, is water resistant to 200 m (656 ft), and features a bigger crown than the other two reference numbers. Another difference is its Explorer-style “3-6-9” dial. However, none of the first three models featured the word ‘Submariner’ on the dial, as this was introduced at the end of 1954. They also all lacked crown guards. Rumor has it that Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf didn’t think the public was ready for the thicker reference 6200 and, therefore, chose to release the thinner 6204 and 6205 first.

Perfecting the Submariner

In the years after its debut, Rolex felt there was still work to be done on the Submariner. They went on to release quite a few updates. One of the biggest was the introduction of the chronometer-certified Rolex caliber 1030 to the references 6538 and 6536 in 1955. This revolutionary movement proved to be more efficient than previous movements. In Dr. No, James Bond wears a 6538, thus boosting the 6538 to the icon status it still enjoys to this day.

The first major design update came with the release of the reference numbers 5512 and 5513. Both had long production runs, even by Rolex standards. Rolex manufactured the 5512 from 1958 to 1978, while the 5513 premiered in 1962 and was in production until 1989. Their designs included some major changes: The case sizes had expanded from 36 to 40 mm, they feature crown guards, and the words “Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified” now adorned the dial. In addition, Rolex had also kept improving their movements. The calibers 1520 and 1530 proved to be a step up from their predecessors.

The Introduction of the Cyclops Lens

In 1966, Rolex added yet another iconic feature to the Submariner with the introduction of the ref. 1680. It was the first Submariner to feature a date window and plexiglass with the now-famous Cyclops lens for magnifying the date. While controversial, there is no doubt that the Cyclops lens has become a defining feature of many Submariners. The 1680 was powered by the new and improved Rolex caliber 1575 and also featured a red inscription on the dial until 1973. Since then, models with this colorful element have become legendary and highly sought after by collectors.

From Steel to Gold

Until 1969, the Rolex Submariner had only been available in steel. By that time, the watch had already become an icon with widespread popularity. This inspired Rolex to introduce the first gold version of the Submariner. A few years prior, the company had already had the idea to introduce a white gold version of the 1680 and had even made the prototypes for this watch. Somehow it never made it to series production, and they decided to move on to a yellow gold version with a blue dial and bezel. The ref. 16618 was released in 1969 and added an extra dimension to the Submariner series. It marked the introduction of true luxury in the form of precious metals to the collection. It was also the first Submariner to have a different colored dial and bezel.

Modern Times, Modern Materials

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Rolex decided to make a major update to their highly successful Submariner and improve its already impressive performance capabilities. In 1979, Rolex introduced the ref. 16800. It featured sapphire crystal and an increased water resistance of up to 300 meters (984 ft). Rolex followed that up in 1981 with an even further improved ref. 16800 and the new ref. 16618. They outfitted these timepieces with unidirectional bezels and the Rolex caliber 3085. The 1980s also saw the introduction of a Submariner in Rolesor (ref. 16613) in 1983. Rolesor is the company’s name for bicolor models in gold and steel. Five years later, a new caliber, the 3135, launched as the power behind the ref. 16610. Every improvement is not only a testament to Rolex’s innovative nature but also demonstrates perfectly how you can reinvent a classic without totally changing its aesthetics.

Rolex Submariner 50th Anniversary

It took until 2003 for Rolex to release the next new version of the Submariner. For the collection’s 50th anniversary, the company decided to introduce a new steel version of the ref. 16610, this time with a green bezel. While many assumed it was a special anniversary model, Rolex actually made the ref. 16610LV a normal production model with no limited or numbered editions. Essentially, it added a new color to the Submariner family and was met with a lot of praise.

The Rolex Submariner Today

The current versions of the Submariner Date first saw the light of day in 2009. Rolex equipped them with a ceramic bezel, fat case lugs, and a new bracelet. Initially, Rolex only introduced these features to the Rolesor version (ref. 116613LB). However, it was quickly followed by the white gold version with blue dial and bezel (ref. 116619) and the steel versions in green and black (ref. 116610LN/LV) in 2010. In 2012, Rolex began outfitting the Submariner No Date with the same ceramic bezel, fat case lugs, and bracelet.

That brings us to today. Over the decades, Rolex has only made minor changes to its classic Submariner watches as far as the design is concerned. That is perhaps a greater achievement than all the technical improvements. It is what made the Submariner the icon it is today. Regardless of its generation, a Submariner is always unmistakably a Submariner. It’s also the secret to the success of the Rolex Submariner: The combination of a consistent design with technical development made this a watch that pretty much everyone knows and many people aspire to have.

What started out as an elegant diving watch for everyday use has become an international icon among luxury watches. You can wear a Rolex Submariner to almost any occasion: from diving while on vacation to an elegant soirée. All you have to do is choose your preferred version and save up the money for it. In the end, you will be the owner of a piece of watch history that is second to none.

Read more

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James Bond Watches – From Rolex To Omega And Beyond

Great Alternatives to the Rolex Submariner


About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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